Addiction is an isolating disease, for both the addict and those who love him or her. The addicted individual becomes preoccupied with obtaining, storing, and hiding the supply of drugs and/or alcohol, so much so that relationships to themselves and others take a backseat. Similarly, family members detach from the outside world due to feelings of guilt, shame, fear, sadness, and disappointment. The destruction that addiction leaves behind is unlike any other illness.
Individuals who are in active addiction are unstable and unpredictable. They will lie, cheat, and steal in order to keep the disease alive. Oftentimes, family members live in a constant state of fear — the addict’s erratic behavior causes stress, anxiety, suspicion, paranoia and doubt. As boundaries become distorted, the entire family system deteriorates. Family members may enable, rescue, or attempt to control the addict — with good intentions — but the relationship is all but destroyed.
You, as a family member, are the problem solver and the fixer. You love taking care of the people you love. What you don’t realize, is that each decision you make, like doing something for someone else, might cross an invisible line, which takes you away from doing something for or taking care of yourself. It is not wrong to take care of others, as long as there is a balance with taking care of you. It’s like balancing a scale. If it’s weighted too heavily on one side then the scale is unbalanced. We are people, not scales, and our balance comes from setting and maintaining healthy boundaries in our relationships with others.
It’s time to find balance and set healthy boundaries to begin enjoying life again. Here are a few tips to help you get started.
- “’No’ is a complete sentence.” A co-dependent relationship, especially one that involves addiction, takes power away from the family member and passes it onto the addict and his or her disease. While the first step of codependency recovery is admitting powerlessness over the loved one’s addiction, the end result is to gain control of you. Remember, no one can make you do anything — your actions are a reflection of your choices. “No” is a complete sentence and will serve you well as you embark on your own journey of recovery.
- “If it’s good for you, it’s good for everyone.” Les Carter, Ph.D. is the author of a self-help workbook appropriately called When Pleasing You Is Killing Me. In this book, readers learn about the unhealthy patterns of people-pleasing and find the balance between serving others and proper self care. Similar to putting on your oxygen mask in an airplane before assisting others, making a decision that is good for you will positively impact those around you.
- “If you need an answer right now, the answer is no.” Addicts have a way of manipulating any situation. Oftentimes, this includes putting unnecessary stress and pressure on family members to make important decisions immediately. Most situations that require hefty decision-making take time and prayer. If the addict in your life demands an answer, simply tell him or her no. Remember, No is a complete sentence.
- “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” The highly esteemed Eleanor Roosevelt uttered this poignant statement, and it still rings true today. You are in charge of your actions, thoughts, and words. If you feel inadequate or less than, you gave someone permission to treat you as such. Be kind to yourself — you are enough.
Communication is everything in a relationship. Poor communication leads to frustration and resentment, while effective communication results in understanding and mutual respect. If you feel anxious, resentful, worn out, smothered, disregarded, disrespected or hurt, it’s safe to assume that your boundaries have been violated. Below is a constructive technique for expressing your feelings to the addict in your life:
1) “When you [ actual behavior ], I feel [ emotion ] because _______________.”
2) “I prefer/want/need [ specific action ] because ______________________.”
3) “If you continue [ actual behavior ], I will [ specific action ].”
It’s important to note that once boundaries have been infringed upon, you must follow through with the appropriate consequences. Be patient — implementing effective communication techniques and setting healthy boundaries will not ensure overnight changes, but you will begin to experience improvements in your relationship with the addicted loved one over time. Most importantly, you will notice positive changes in yourself.